Many Useless Things - and One Useful Thing

A while back I wrote a response to a question from Rev Al Bloom of Shin DharmaNet, who asked me

Is it necessary to be a know-nothing to be a person of SHINJIN?

Here, in a letter to a dharma friend who is not a Shin Buddhist - I explore the same question, more deeply from the standpoint of both Path of the Sages Buddhist teaching, and my own personal experience.

As you read it, please understand that I am not disparaging the classic expositions of the Buddha-dharma - not in the least - and neither is Shinran.

Rather, I am addressing the singular concern that Shinran himself was pre-occupied with, for the entire 60 years of his own career as a dharma student of Honen, and then as the Master of the final dharma for this age of Dharma Decline.


Hello Dharma Friend -

You are not (yet) a Shin Buddhist. I am. As such, I look to Shinran as my Master Teacher, just like Eiken Kobai does, and George Gatenby, too.

Not Karen Armstrong, not David Brazier, not the Dalai Lama, not Teitsu Unno, not D.T Suzuki, not Joseph Campbell, not David Loy, not Al Bloom, not Nobuo Haneda, not Marcus Borg.

Not anybody else but Shinran - and those who hew to Shinran’s teaching completely, without injecting their own divergent opinions.

And of course Shakyamuni, who Shinran himself looked to as well, as he said the the great purpose for Shakyamuni Buddha’s presence here on earth was to give us the Larger Pure Land Sutra.

So my awareness of the dharma starts where Shinran’s does: with the UNIQUENESS of this dharma gate, among all the 84,000 (mythic number, I know).

It is a mistake, in Shinran’s view, to attempt to try to locate his dharma within any of the other streams of the teaching. He never talks about the Mahayana as opposed to the Hinayana as the basis for his understanding.

Trying to do that - to locate Shin Buddhism within the broad gates of the Mahayana- is one of the seminal mistakes made by Shin scholars who diverge from Shnran’s True Teaching …as will become clearer below.

You NEVER see Shinran, or Honen or Rennyo for that matter, appealing to the classic understandings of Buddhism EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE TRUE.

And we’re talking about three of the great scholars of all time, when it comes to the Dharma. They knew it all - cold. But they didn’t USE it for their own lives…and they sure didn’t recommend that I use it for mine, either.


Beacause they knew they COULDN’T. They knew that for them, they simply couldn’t make their lives work, using the many teachings in the Path of the Sages, to gain liberation.

Even though all the Dharma is profoundly true - they knew, deep in their guts, that it was USELESS - for them to come to an end of suffering, at last.

That’s the SHIN UGLY truth, right there. Not my truth, but Shinran’s - and Shakyamuni’s.

It is Eiken Kobai’s as well - if you read his books. And it is George Gatenby’s too.

  • Samsara is Nirvana? Useless.
  • Pure Land is Pure Mind? Useless.
  • Dharma of Impermanence? Useless.
  • Mutual interdependence? Useless.

Not false, mind you, but USELESS - in terms of expedience to attain TRUE liberation - an end to the cyclic horror of birth after birth after birth in the six realsm - for people in this age of dharma decline (MAPPO).

To continue…talking about the many and varied teachings outside of the dharma:

  • Non-dual awareness (Buddhist, Advaita or generic)?
  • Useless.
  • Post-modernism? Useless.
  • Mythos perspective? Useless.
  • Panentheism? Useless.
  • Various states of meditative bliss? Useless.
  • Late night philosophical discussions of any and every type? Useless.

All USELESS…each and every one.

When I say useless I mean precisely this:

As a 21st century man, you know that the universe, including your flesh and blood body, is really almost entirely empty space - comprised of various atomic and subatomic particles moving at the speed of light.

Driving to work today? This sub-atomic knowledge is USELESS to accomplish that task, and stay alive. If your head smashes through the windshield because you didn’t wear your seatbelt and got in a crash, all that modern physics knowledge will not keep your brains in your skull.

For that purpose, in that context, it’s USELESS.

That’s why the great scholar Honen, and his pre-eminent student and equally great scholar Shinran, admonished their audience to drop ALL scholarly pretensions and approach the dharma AS IF they were totally unlettered…in order to become established in what Shinran describes as the singular goal of his Dharma: the state of SHINJIN…true entrusting.

Why? Because, as Shakyamuni Buddha teaches in the Larger Pure Land Sutra, one thought-moment of SHINJIN seals us for rebirth in the Pure Land at the end of this life.

It’s hard to do when we’ve had SO much education - and Amazon and Google are just a click away. SHINJIN requires that we drop the education entirely.

How do I know? Because both Honen and Shinran say so. I’ve posted their words on my blog. Click HERE to see them.

What causes people of so much education to drop it entirely? Mostly over-the-top, unbearable suffering - though of course I don’t wish that on anyone, ever.

But when the tsunami comes, and sweeps away everything we crave, and dumps into our lives everything we are averse to, we simply break.

At that point, all the myriad ideas and practices in the path of the sages, Buddhist, Advaita, secular and otherwise, become USELESS.

We become, finally, like Shan-Tao’s stricken man, standing between the river of fire and the river of water.

We are having, at last, the Great Negative Epiphany that Gotama had, about living in this SAMSARIC world of suffering.

But there is one CRITICAL difference that is finally clear: we know, at last, that we are not capable as Gotama was to self-cultivate to Buddhahood.

Instead, we know that we will die and be reborn, in countless lives of suffering, going up and down the six realms, from one disastrous existence to another.

Everything we know, and everything we think, and everything we think we know…is USELESS to extricate us from this, our true and real predicament. It was just as true before - only we didn’t know it until the wave actually hit the beach of our lives.

That’s where Shinran starts his TRUE journey, after 20 years on the path of the sages. That’s where I started, after 30 years, too.

No doubt you Shan Tao’s parable. But have you considered DEEPLY what the River of Fire and the River of Water really are, in your own life?

Here’s my consideration: Water, archetypically, is desire, LUST. The river of water are all your desires - all your blind passions - in the direction of your CRAVINGS. What do you crave?

Do you have a wife? Do you crave that she remain alive? Healthy? Faithful to you?

Do you have children? What do you crave in regards to them?

How about your health? Do you have cravings there?

Of course I could go on and on…and of course most of us share the vast majority of the same cravings. We have desire - intense emotion-backed desire- desire that is living in us with the force of blind passion - that things remain GOOD, BETTER, BEST in so many areas of our lives.

These are our lusts…our attachments…our cravings.

And what is the river of fire? Fire archetypally is associated with Rage. From where does our rage come? From not getting what we want (our cravings) and getting instead what we don’t want (our aversions).

What would happen if you found your wife in the arms of another man? If your child was brutalized and raped? If you were treated evilly and unfairly on your job? If you survived nuclear holocaust?

As a plain person, your blind passions would arise as RAGE - or, if turned inward, as depression and despair.

We all have our breaking point…precisely because we are not Buddhas - and have no way to become Buddhas, in a world of samsara.

That breaking point is the position Shan-Tao talks about, and both Genshin and Shinran quote, in describing our true condition in this world - whether we experience it in the present moment or not.

Because we are plain people and not Buddhas, the reality of impermanence is a curse, rather than an blessing. So did Gotama see that fateful day. It is precisely because we are so deeply attached, with such passionate cravings and aversions, that we are so terribly vulnerable to such overwhelming suffering.

If we could self-cultivate the cool detachment of Gotama under the tree of awakening, we could escape the karmic curse. But in this age we cannot…not even the best of us, much less the rest of us.

So Shinran teaches…so I believe.

When the terrifying reality behind this dharma strikes you with the force of a kick in the testicles, you will be unable to find any solace whatsoever in any of the many and varied paths of the sages that still support you today.

You will simply be hurting too much.

You will be Shan-Tao’s man, caught between the River of Fire and the River of Water.

Shakyamuni describes the same terrifying and appalling reality, from life to life to life, in the Larger Sutra.

It is the moment of The Great Negative Epiphany - the point at which Buddha’s words become reality in your life, and everyone else’s words become dead ashes.

There will be nothing left for you to take refuge in - no idea, no practice - Buddhist or otherwise.


At that point you will truly hear Shakyamuni Buddha’s voice, as I have heard it, from the near shore, behind you, urging your forward - and Amida Buddha’s voice from the far shore, calling you to Him.

How you, or I, or anyone, gets to that point is a mystery, of course…a karmic mystery. The singular work of ANY true teacher of Shinran’s dharma is simply to make the roadmap clear as clear can be…so that even an unlettered person in terrible mental turmoil can see it clearly, and embrace what has been given with the heart of a child, and so come to true entrusting.

  • Mahayana? Useless.
  • Precepts? Useless.
  • Paramitas? Useless.
  • Massive amounts of meditation? Useless.
  • Any other practice from any Buddhist school or sect? Useless.
  • Buddhist social action? Useless.

For THAT man, living with THAT terror, it’s all USELESS.

THAT realization is THE necessary prelude to Amida’s Salvation.

Now…at last…after how many lifetimes…that man is ready to listen deeply to Shinran’s dharma.

THIS, and this alone, is the ONLY practice in Jodo Shinshu - listening deeply as only a truly desperate man can.

THIS is the one thing…the only thing…that is USEFUL.

It is both the necessary condition, and the sufficient condition for Amida’s salvation in THIS lifetime, and Buddhahood in the next after Amida takes us across countless universes to his Pure Land to complete our journey.

Eiken Kobai writes well about this. I’m very glad you’re reading his book, Understanding Jodo Shinshu.



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